Checking on people held in custody

Spending your evenings or afternoons seeing people in police cells isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but visitors who see them are carrying out a vital function.

Yet it is something ordinary members of the public can do. Ordinary people like Bushra Khan who has been an ICV since 2007 when she became interested in volunteering. She recalls that she filled in some basic application forms, which were quickly followed by an interview and a positive reply the next day.

Training, a very detailed and full handbook as well as role play helped prepare her for the real thing which comprises one or two visits each month to the three police stations in Newham - Plaistow, Forest Gate and West Ham.

Bushra, 37, who lives in Manor Park, is one ICV in a panel of 15 for the borough. They all work on a rota which is flexible to allow for changes should the need arise. The random and unannounced visits can take anything from 30 minutes to two hours.

“If you can’t do it or make it for whatever reason, all they ask is that you let someone know because it is important that these visits go ahead.

“Initially I thought that I would do it for about six months but I have never stopped and this is my third year. It seems like its a small thing that I am doing but its makes a difference. There were detainees who were nor receiving enough blankets so we had a chat with the Inspector and something was done about it.”

On another occasion officers at one police station asked the ICVs to keep up the pressure about the state of their kitchen.

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Bushra said: “There is no friction between us and the officers. 99 per cent of the time it has worked out very well. We have never been in a situation where we have had to take a complaint further.”

Most of the detainees are happy to talk to the visitors who are announced by a police officer who will open the cell door then stand behind it to allow the ICVs to talk.

“We have never been in any kind of danger and I have never felt uncomfortable,” said Bushra.

She encourages other people to volunteer and become involved. “I would say two things: You are doing something to increase the public’s trust in the police and two, it is experience that you will not obtain anywhere else.

“I am glad that I have done it and I will carry on doing it.”

Bushra’s work along with that of her other colleagues is valued by police officers,. among them Newham Borough Commander Simon Letchford.

He told the Recorder: “I always welcome increased transparency here at Newham police. Having members of the public coming in to help us improve our service and provide us with a unique perspective is invaluable.

“I urge members of the public to join the scheme and volunteer some of their time to help give a little back to their community.”

*Independent Custody Visitors are recruited by the Metropolitan Police Authority and they want to attract people from as many backgrounds and communities to ensure the scheme reflects London’s diversity.

If you want to become an independent custody visitor you need to be 18 or over and work or study in the borough you want to visit in.

Independent Custody Visitors must have no direct involvement in the criminal justice system. For example, they cannot be serving police officers or staff, special constables or magistrates.

Appointment as an independent custody visitor is subject to a successful application and interview process. This includes receiving clearance from the Metropolitan Police Service Vetting Department and signing up to its Memorandum of Understanding scheme.

On becoming a volunteer you will need to attend training sessions to prepare you for the role, and complete a six-month probationary period to become fully accredited.

The MPA is recruiting Londoners in various boroughs across the capital to the independent custody visiting scheme, and wants to hear from you if you think you can offer your time and experience to this important role.

Once a week, two ICV visitors from a local panel go to a police station at a random, unannounced time to make an inspection and speak to detainees.

On arrival, they are escorted to the custody area where they interview a number of detainees in their cells and complete a structured report form.

For the visitors’ protection, interviews are normally carried out within sight but out of hearing, of the escorting police officer.

Strict rules of confidentiality apply. Detainees are identified only by their custody numbers and the details of what visitors see and hear must also be treated as confidential. It is equally important that independent custody visitors maintain their independence and impartiality and do not become involved or take sides. They are there to look, listen and report on conditions in the custody facility. For more details go to